Cardinal William Levada: Neoliberalism is not compatible with Catholic social teaching

Some call him the Catholic Secretary of Ideology, others the numero due of the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal William Joseph Levada is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That makes him a Very Important Bishop, at least. Cardinal Levada took out time for an in-depth interview with MO*, one of the first such interviews since he took office in May 2005. He spoke about religious fundamentalism and the social impact of belief, relations with Islam, and the excesses of globalization.
  • gie goris Cardinal Levada: 'I am not responsible for the Crusades' gie goris
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is no small fish in the global institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Levada’s predecessor, the current Pope Benedict XVI, headed the Congregation for 24 years, which gave him a platform to influence the public and intra-ecclesiastical positions of the Vatican long before he was elected Pope.
MO* encountered Cardinal Levada in his offices at the Vatican, under the shadow of Saint Peter’s Basilica, with church bells as an appropriate backdrop. Cardinal Levada is not the kind of person you would expect to pat you on the back or to share a pitcher of beer with, though his formal distance does not stand in the way of a genuine friendliness. He is very accurate and articulate, and does not shy away from taking clear positions.
Before his appointment, Cardinal Levada served as Archbishop of San Francisco. His American background often comes through when he explains his explicitly conservative views on Church and society.  MO* refrained from focusing on typical church issues such as same-sex marriage, clergy sexual abuse, and abortion. Instead, we focused on global issues including the relationship between Christians and Muslims, and between Europe and its Muslim neighbors.

Right to religious freedom

The Catholic Church shares quite a few values and even elements of faith with Islam. That should make Rome an important player in the indispensable dialogue between the West and Islam, says Cardinal Levada. “That dialogue is a crucial effort at this moment of history, not just for the religions but also for the future of humanity. We both share a common resistance to the violence that is perpetrated in the name of religion. Even though the Old Testament contains many passages in which God uses violence against the enemies of His people, we know that God is not a God of violence”.
The rejection of a religiously motivated violence, in Levada’s view, is in the first place a call to respect each person’s freedom. “In the Catholic Church we needed centuries of religious and doctrinal development to arrive at the insight that each person has a right to religious liberty”, says Cardinal Levada.
Would not the defense of religious pluralism gain in strength and credibility if the Church itself would present it with a bit more humility, for example by recognizing its own mistakes in the past? “I am not anymore responsible for the crusades than atheists are responsible for what Hitler or Stalin did”, the cardinal responds.
“The Church’s clear position on religious freedom is the result of many painful experiences: the crusades, the religious wars in Europe, the martyrs under the Protestant kings of England, and the Catholic prelates in Spain and France”, he adds. “And, as a matter of fact, Pope John Paul II did recognize those mistakes in the past. But it becomes a bit strange when the Church, time and again is denied credibility to speak up against violence by refering to the crusades”.

Rome, Ankara: one front?

The call for tolerance and against violence was the central point of the Pope’s lecture in September in Regensburg, though that point was drowned out by the controversy caused by a quotation of the Byzantine emperor Paleologus. For a moment, the two largest world religions seemed headed on a collision course instead of playing their mutual roles as religions of peace and humanism.
The Pope cleared away whatever trouble was caused when he emerged from the plane in Ankara in December. He gave Prime Minister Erdogan his support for Turkish EU-membership. That was a surprising gesture for a man that, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, said that Turkey’s future should be found in the Muslim world, rather than in the European Union.
Cardinal Levada: “The supportive words of the Pope to Prime Minister Erdogan do not represent an official position of the Vatican, let alone should they be understood as infallible. They do form, however, a very good way to put an important issue on the European agenda: Do we want to create a Europe that excludes every religious expression from the public domain or will the influx of Muslim communities force us to find another solution anyway? Maybe Europe should rather open up more space for religion on its public square”.
The place religious conviction has in the public arena and in political discussions is an issue that gets the Cardinal sit up and speak out. “I discern the emergence of a ‘fundamentalism of religious exclusion’. That is a position that under no circumstance accepts the holy conviction of a believer, unless he is willing to present himself as a searcher among searchers, and his convictions as a possibility among possibilities. Once you say that you’ve searched and you’ve found the answer, you’re excluded. Conservative believers in the US describe this tendency as the aspiration for a naked public square: a public square stripped from every religious reference and from every religious participation”.  Cardinal Levada rejects that approach and reckons that his Catholic Church and the Islamic communities in Europe can agree on this point.

The literal text

Millions of people believe that the Bible, the Qoran, or the Torah are the literal Word of God. They organize their lives so that they follow as closely as possible the literal reading of their respective scripture. Professor Psychology of Religion Dirk Hutsebaut from the Catholic University of Leuven (Louvain) recently stressed that this kind of black-or-white belief increases the chances of an extremist rejection of the Other and of violent activism.
He formulated his findings at the occasion of the presentation of the book, Faith-based Radicalism. Every faith and every conviction functions as a foundation for a social identity by creating “in-groups” and “out-groups”. The difference, says Professor Hutsebaut, is that believers who do not engage in a personal interpretation of their sources of faith fail much more to be in solidarity with those who are not considered part of their “in-group”.
To be complete, Professor Hutsebaut added that the very same psychological tendencies can be found with unbelievers. In that category as well he found that the “closed” unbeliever, the one who considers anything not proven scientifically as non-existent, has a strong tendency to think of his own group as possessing the only real truth.
A good number of Christians would fall under the category “closed believers” and would only accept the literal text of the Bible as the guiding principle of their lives and, if possible, of the way society is organized. Asked if he would consider this fundamentalism problematic, Cardinal Levada responded:
“From the point of view of society, not necessarily. Take for instance the Amish, a Christian sect largely living in Pennsylvania. They continue living like their forefathers of the 17th century did, they reject modern farming equipment and mostly all electricity and powered machinery. But that does not seem to be a problem for them. Their agriculture often is more successful than that of their neighbors, and they get along quite well with the rest of society.
Their fundamentalist beliefs would turn problematic if they would start to believe that God calls them to use violence against all those who do not share their convictions. The crucial thing is that free choice is guaranteed.  Even though that freedom is conditional too, of course. As soon as parents reject, from their literalist beliefs, blood transfusions and thereby endanger the lives of their children, we are in problematic territory.
It is like the conviction of the Mormons who hold polygamy acceptable. Society at large in the United States thinks that is unacceptable because it is detrimental to the women and the children and thus for society. So the law interferes and forbids this belief to be put in practice. A society has to formulate limits, whatever the religious convictions of individual believers or churches”.
Someone has to decide
Cardinal Levada does not like fundamentalism as a way of life. At the same time he heads the administration responsible for formulating and guarding the doctrine of a billion Catholic believers. In what sense does his mission differ from the ambitions of movements who preach an undisputable truth and try all they can to subject others to that truth? The prelate’s answer is a lengthy dissertation on the relation between faith and reason, concluded by the statement that accepting the dogmas of the Church is not the same as abdicating one’s freedom of thought or capacity to reason.
“After all”, he said, “human reason and intelligence are, after divine grace, the ultimate gifts, the capacities that differentiate us from the rest of creation. But reason is balanced by devotion, the acceptance of an authority beyond yourself, of God. That is not the same as a rejection of human reason or an autonomous judgment, but an exercise in challenging our own thinking by confronting it to calls that supercede or, on first view, even contradict this thinking”.
The role of the Church in that dialogue between an individual and his or her God, says the Cardinal, is not to be the first interlocutor, but the role is indispensable. “We believe that the apostles and their successors received the mission to interpret revelation in new circumstances and in the light of new challenges. That creates a living tradition that is much larger than the simple and strict passing of existing answers, insights and convictions from one generation to another.
But at the end of the day there has to be an instance that can decide whether a specific lifestyle is coherent with the principles and values of our faith, that can judge whether our actions are in accordance with the commandment to love your neighbor. The mission of the Church is not to prohibit people from thinking, investigate different hypotheses, or collect knowledge. Its mission is to give those processes orientation”.

The knowledge of good and evil

“My problem with the Church is that she has all the answers, while I prefer to leave the mystery intact”, said a recently deceased Dutch singer. Robert Long, as he called himself, clearly was not waiting for bishops and priests to be his arbiter. Cardinal Levada is not impressed. He responds: “The mystery of God goes way beyond anything we know or ever can know”.
And that is quite a lot these days, he adds, since “human knowledge and the challenges that come with it grow exponentially. The development of the nuclear bomb, for instance, was an incredible achievement of the human spirit, scientific progress without precedent -but now I am using ‘progress’ in all its ambivalence, of course. But was it good to develop the nuclear bomb? A similar question should now be asked concerning cloning. We can do it, but does that necessarily mean we want to apply the technique on humans too?
The ethical question whether something is good, continues to be more important than the scientific question whether something is possible. God revealed to us what love is and with that knowledge we must answer the question whether the nuclear bomb is in accordance with the commandment to love your neighbor. Is cloning an expression of love? These are the kind of questions you cannot solve by preserving God as an unknown mystery. You need to discover the truth”.
Make no mistake. The Vatican has the solution to a lot of the questions evoked. The Church condemns cloning. The Church condemns stem cell research. But has the Church magisterium ever condemned the atomic bomb in equally clear terms? “No”, the Cardinal admits, “but the magisterium is usually far behind on the evolution of moral challenges. Usually the magisterium will not take a position on issues that evoke opposed opinions that each claims to stand on solid faith arguments”.

Neither Marxism…

Pope John-Paul II did not wait for centuries to speak very critically about economic globalization. Cardinal Levada stresses that “every Pope since Leo XIII has contributed to a beautiful collection of social doctrines that can stand up to any other, including those in the political arena”. Catholic social teaching should get much more attention, he says, “but we are up against a consumer society that keeps everybody busy the whole time with consumption, sports, work, or vacation. The effect is that people hardly find the time to stop and reflect on the social dimensions of their faith. If we would give more attention to social issues during our liturgies, more people might show up because they would feel that these celebrations would concern their lives, would offer them something more”.
These socially involved words have a slightly hollow ring to them in the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that did whatever it could during the seventies and eighties to stop liberation theology from its ascendancy, even though this movement placed social involvement squarely at the center of religious life. Liberation theology did not quite endear CDF predecessor Cardinal Ratzinger to the Catholic left, to put it mildly.
The current Prefect nuances the situation: ‘The documents on liberation theology that were published by Cardinal Ratzinger defend the social teachings of the Church in their right application. They do warn however against a theology that makes common cause with communist or socialist ideologies, because that is in contradiction with the liberation as it was revealed in Jesus Christ and of which the gospels give testimony. The condemnation of liberation theology, in other words, was not a condemnation of a socially oriented Christendom”.

… nor neoliberalism

If the Church could speak out so clearly against the combination of Christianity and Marxism, would there not be a need today for an equally clear pronouncement that Christianity is not compatible with the praxis and the values of neoliberalism?  Cardinal Levada answered unequivocally: “That would certainly be in accordance with the teachings as formulated from Leo XIII onwards”.
He continued:  “In the United States, neoliberalism was fiercely debated on the occasion of the signing of NAFTA. The unions opposed that free trade treaty because they feared the consequences of a globalized competition for the workers and the circumstances and conditions in which they work. My sympathy in that debate is clearly with the unions. We cannot just leave the issue of a global economy to a few people with economic degrees. Economics is far too soft a science for that. Economists come along with new theories every so often, without a guarantee for the people that they will serve them better. That is why Catholic teaching says that we cannot blindly jump into this neoliberal approach of the globalizing economy.
You just cannot say that in the end everything will be all right, when your theory in its contemporary practice costs the lives of millions of human beings. That is not what we understand to be a successful economy and it does not stand the test of gospel values. Our mission is: love your neighbor. But how do you do that when almost every African country is suffering from the most acute poverty? How do we practise charity in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands are dying? Those are the challenges that really matter in the world today”.

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